On autonomy and control at the digital workplace. What can research contribute?

In his famous piece on “Enterprise 2.0”, McAfee raised in 2006 the hopeful question “Do we finally have the right technologies for knowledge work?” (p. 21). Almost ten years later, it seems that research and practice are still far from answering the question with an indisputable “Yes.” While social collaboration through wikis, portals, and social media has emerged at the workplace, email communication has likewise increased and continues to grow. Following the current discussion on digital workplace design for knowledge workers, I asked myself what research on information systems can contribute to the debate. Good thing, that publication madness provides the world with hundreds of papers that often include a dedicated section with implications for practitioners.

In a research paper for the “Practice-oriented IS research” track at International Conference on Information Systems 2015, I summarized academic research on the digital workplace by analyzing over 80 articles. The analysis included top academic outlets (“A-Journals”) from the management and information systems discipline as well as popular practitioner-oriented scientific outlets, such as Harvard Business Review or MIT Sloan Management Review.

Despite the growing interest in digital workplace design in practice, there is yet no particular research stream on the topic. However, scholars have conducted intensive research on related topics.

  • First, Scholars investigated the use of collaboration tools within, including social media and group support systems. (Example)
  • Second, studies have analyzed non-compliant behaviors, where users bypass IT guidelines with well meaning, for instance, to increase their productivity or to help colleagues. (Example)
  • Third, many studies deal with the shift to mobile work processes, enabled by sophisticated and consumer-oriented devices and software. (Example)
  • Fourth, researchers have examined adverse outcomes of technology (over)use in the workplace. (Example)

The studies on the related topics formulate manifold recommendations for designing the digital workplace of the future. Throughout the four themes, recommendations can be classified into those that promote more user autonomy for employees and those that opt for stronger organizational controls. Also, scholars argue for a better consideration of individual differences concerning technological preferences and user characteristics, i.e. one-size-fits-all strategies are inappropriate to solve current workplace challenges.

The quest for the right balance between autonomy and control has been studied for many years. The two concepts represent a longstanding leadership paradox, i.e. they seem logical when considered in isolation, but somehow irrational, and absurd when juxtaposed. However, management research proposes to manage such paradoxes by dynamic strategies of integration, i.e. they must be accepted and harmonized simultaneously. Concerning the digital workplace, it means that the question of autonomy and control is not “either-or”, but “both-and”. I want to mention three implications on the digital workplace of this strategy, that I think are most important:

  • Consumer-oriented working styles will be an essential part of the digital workplace since it allows knowledge workers to personalize customize their workplace. For instance, they might select appropriate technologies and training contents on their own.
  • Monitoring of knowledge workers’ behaviors is not per sé invasive, but sometimes a necessary help to avoid unproductiveness or overload.
  • Individual workplace designs will be required to capture the particular needs of workers and job roles. A development that correlates well with other ongoing workplace trends.

After all, do we now have the right technologies for knowledge work? Maybe we have them for years, but still we need to learn a lot how to use them right.

The complete research article “Designing the digital workplace of the future — what scholars recommend to practitioners” will be presented at the International Conference on Information Systems 2015 in Fort Worth, USA.

This article contributes to the “blog parade” about the future of work related to KnowTech 2015 conference.